Autumn is a great season in Western New York for all sorts of outdoor activities, whether it is leaf peeping, hiking, bird watching, hunting or working in the yard and garden.
But it is also prime tick season — again. While we need to stay vigilant against the blacklegged tick — also known as the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis — almost year-round, it’s easy to let your guard down when cooler weather arrives.
However, mid-October is when the blacklegged tick adults are getting ready to mate. While male ticks are looking for female ticks, the female ticks are looking for a blood meal to help her produce eggs.
Ticks are arachnids, which makes them relatives to spiders and mites. They have four life stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph and eight-legged adult.
The size of poppy seeds, blacklegged tick nymphs are brown in color. Adult females are red and black, while males are black, both the size of a sesame seed.
Blacklegged ticks will have three blood meals in their lifetime, which can be two to three years. All three stages of the deer tick feed on a variety of hosts including white-footed mice, deer, other mammals and people.
Deer are the main reproductive host for adult blacklegged ticks — hence the common name of deer tick.
So how does a tick find you?
Ticks can actually detect body heat, plus the breath and body odors of potential hosts as well as moisture and even vibrations. Since they can’t jump or fly to a host, they do something called “questing.”
Ticks will hold onto leaves or grass — usually about 3 feet above the ground — by their third and fourth pair of legs, leaving their first pair of legs stretched out. When they sense a host going by, the tick climbs aboard.
It will then find itself a place to attach to the skin, usually where the skin is thinner.
Ticks can take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours to find a feeding spot, depending on the species and life stage. When it finds a spot, it cuts the skin and inserts its feeding tube.
Blacklegged ticks secrete a cement like substance to help them stay attached. They can also secrete saliva with anesthetic properties so that you do not feel them feeding, as well as chemicals to maintain blood flow.
If you don’t realize the tick is on you, it will slowly suck your blood for several days, until it is completely engorged. If the tick contains a pathogen it can be transmitted to you during feeding.
Blacklegged ticks in the Northeast are known carries of Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus.
Fully fed, the female tick will drop off and find a place to spend the winter such as a pile of leaves. If it drops off indoors, it won’t survive long inside because of the low humidity.
Deer ticks can stay active until temperatures drop below freezing. They prefer habitats that are heavily shaded and damp as they require high humidity.
Areas covered with leaf litter are ideal. Typical habitat for deer ticks are wooded areas, along edge habitats and unmaintained borders.
A shrubby boarder between a lawn and the woods can be a tick hot spot. Deer ticks are rarely found in open, sunny areas or on well-maintained lawns.
A high number of host animals is also important.
Ticks can end up in yards by catching a ride on one of their hosts. Rock walls, woodpiles and brush piles are also high-risk areas as they shelter mice, another tick host.
The best way to protect yourself, your family, and your pets is to avoid getting bit by a tick. Whenever you are outside use EPA-registered tick repellents such as DEET or Picaridin.
Permethrin can be used to treat clothes, shoes or camping gear, but never apply it to the skin. Wear light-colored clothing as it makes it easier to see if a tick is crawling on you.
Tuck long pants into your socks and tuck your shirt into your pants. This makes it harder for ticks to get to your bare skin.
You may think you look goofy, but it’s better than having to remove a tick from yourself later.
Avoid tick habitat when possible. If you are out for a walk or hike, stick to the middle of the trail.
Don’t lean against trees or sit on logs and avoid walking through areas with thick leaf litter or dense vegetation. Frequently check your clothing for ticks when you are outside.
After spending time outdoors, do a thorough tick check of your entire body. If you find a tick, remove it immediately.
A shower can help wash off unattached ticks, but once attached to your skin, ticks do not wash off in the shower. Don’t forget to check your pets as ticks can attach to them too. Talk with your veterinarian about using tick preventives on your pet.
If you find a tick on yourself, child, or pet, do not panic. Remove it carefully.
Put the tick in a small container of rubbing alcohol to kill and preserve it.
Contact your health care provider or veterinarian. If your tick is identified as a deer tick, you may want to submit it to a tick testing lab that will determine if it is carrying Lyme disease.
Having a tick tested can tell you if that tick contains a specific pathogen, but it will not tell you if the tick transmitted the pathogen to you. Tick testing is not a substitute for a doctor’s diagnosis of disease but it can help in deciding whether or not to treat if there are no disease symptoms.
A listing of some tick testing labs can be found on the Tick Encounter Resource Center website at www.tickencounter.org/tick_testing.
Going outside shouldn’t be scary. Taking these precautions can help you stay tick free.
For comprehensive information on ticks and tick-borne illnesses, as well as how to remove a tick, visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/ticks.
Have a gardening question? The Master Gardener office is open.
Please wear a mask when visiting the CCE office and check in at the reception window.
Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until noon. You can stop in at our CCE office at 420 E. Main St. in Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Master Gardeners will be hosting a number of programs via Zoom this fall.
If you were bitten by the dahlia bug this year, join Master Gardener Brandie at noon on Thursday as she walks us through her process of overwintering them.
What would Halloween be without witches? Find out what might be in a Witch’s Garden on Oct. 28 at noon with Master Gardener Connie. If you have questions about orchids, join our Nov. 5 Garden Talk as Master Gardener Jane gives us her tips for happy orchids.
These classes are free but you do need to register at our CCE website events page at http://genesee.cce.cornell.edu/.